The sale of several single-use plastic items including plates and cutlery could be banned in Northern Ireland – but not in the rest of the UK – from 1 January 2022 or sooner.
This is because under the Northern Ireland Protocol, Northern Ireland must transpose “certain articles” of the Single-Use Plastic (SUP) Directive relating to placing single-use plastic goods on the market.
But because the SUP Directive was not transposed into UK law before the end of the Brexit transitional period last year the government in Westminster is not required to implement the directive’s requirements.
While the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has bans in place for some items, such as stirrers and cotton buds, it does not go as far as the SUP Directive at the moment.
A ban on expanded polystyrene food containers and cups has not been introduced and nor has one on single-use plastic plates and cutlery. This means different restrictions could be in place across the UK on either side of the Irish Sea.
For its part, Defra has said that where policy areas are devolved, the respective administrations are taking their own approach to single-use plastics.
A spokesperson for Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) told letsrecycle.com that despite environmental regulation being a devolved matter, it expects “a level of consistency” will be achieved. While DAERA did not expand on ‘consistency’, it appears that to achieve this, it would in essence force Defra’s hand into introducing a similar ban on products such as single use plastic plates in England.
Commenting, a spokesperson for DAERA said: “Environmental regulation is a devolved matter, and each administration has responsibility for introducing appropriate measures to address single-use plastic.”
“It is likely that policy responses will be similar and that a level of consistency will be achieved.”
The spokesperson continued: “The Northern Ireland Executive made a commitment to address plastic pollution as part of its ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement and, in line with this and policy developments across the UK, the DAERA minister asked officials to consider appropriate policy initiatives and legislation on common single-use plastic items for Northern Ireland.
“Whilst each UK administration will develop its own appropriate measures, it is likely that policy responses will be similar and that a level of consistency will be achieved.”
A spokesperson for Defra said alternative approaches to the Directive were under consideration to deliver “the same or better overall outcome” in the rest of the UK. But, they made no pledge to introduce a ban which would see a level of consistency achieved in time, instead saying the Environment Bill “will make it easier” for ministers to do so if they wished.
They said: “The UK is a global leader in tackling plastic pollution. We have taken action to ban microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, we have introduced restrictions on the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and our charge on plastic bags has already cut sales by 95% in the main supermarkets.
“We are going to go further though, and our landmark Environment Bill will give us a raft of new powers to create deposit return schemes for drinks containers, to encourage more recyclable packaging through extended producer responsibility, to ban the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries, and to make it easier for ministers to place charges on other single-use plastic items.”
The EU’s SUP Directive states that by 3 July 2021, member states have to ban the sale of single-use cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, and sticks for balloons. Northern Ireland have an extended deadline of January 2022.
The ban will also apply to cups, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, and on all products made of oxo-degradable plastic.
As agreed by the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee on 17 December 2020, the Northern Ireland Protocol was amended to include certain articles of the EU Single-Use Plastic Directive, which include the banning of these items. By 1 January 2022, Northern Ireland must under the Protocol transpose these articles into its own law regardless of what Defra has done.
The potential difference in legislation is the latest in a string of controversies related to the Protocol.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has the most seats in Northern Ireland’s assembly and has criticised it on a number of occasions, saying it “wreaks havoc on East-West trading relationships and does real damage to the set of political agreements on Northern Ireland”.